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This Minnesota sheriff is pushing for overdose reporting from medical facilities to law enforcement

Medical professionals are required to notify law enforcement if they treat various injuries like gunshot wounds or burns to law enforcement. The way the law sits right now, by the time law enforcement is notified of an overdose, it may be too late to pursue charges against the person who supplied the drugs, according to Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson.

Kevin Torgerson
Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson.
Post Bulletin file photo
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson has been gathering support to require medical facilities to report suspected overdoses to law enforcement.

The push stems from an increase in overdose deaths reported in Olmsted County. In 2020, the county reported 30 overdose deaths, almost double the reported 18 deaths in 2019, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

"We want to be notified so we can hopefully do an investigation and find some justice for the victim," Torgerson said.

The way the law sits right now, by the time law enforcement is notified of an overdose, it may be too late to pursue charges against the person who supplied the drugs, according to Torgerson.

Department of Health data also shows that 2021 saw another increase with 32 reported overdose deaths. Over the course of a decade, overdose deaths have trended upward, in 2011, the amount of reported overdose deaths was 12.

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The Minnesota statute in question requires health professionals to report injuries resulting from a gunshot, burn injuries and any wound they believe was inflicted on a perpetrator of a crime by a dangerous weapon.

Torgerson is seeking changes to the language so that when someone is treated at a health care facility for a suspected overdose, they will be required to report it to law enforcement.

"We're at the beginning phases and just talking about it," he said. "We got to find a way to get ahead of this thing somehow. I feel like we're way behind it right now and we're just kind of treading water."

Statewide, Minnesota counties with a significant population center have seen overdose death increases since 2011 with Hennepin County taking the No. 1 spot for overdose deaths, according to Department of Health data. The county had 396 reported overdose deaths in 2021 compared to 128 reported overdose deaths in 2011.

"This is an issue across the state, whether it's the larger metro area or ours, a kind of urban metro or even rural Minnesota," Torgerson said.

The Rochester Police Department has recorded 14 overdose deaths so far this year in Rochester, compared to seven deaths during the same time frame in 2021.

While overdose deaths are up in Rochester, reported overdoses in total are down for this year, with 91 reported so far in 2022 and 97 reported during the same time frame in 2021.

Rochester Police Sgt. Chad Blanchette attributes the decrease in reported overdoes to naloxone, a drug that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, being more readily available.

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"When someone overdoses, we’re finding that friends or family members are giving naloxone and not calling 911. The immediate use of naloxone is great; however, I would still prefer emergency services be utilized too," Blanchette wrote in an email for this story. "There are times when a single dose of naloxone is ineffective and each second is vital during a medical emergency. The sooner we can get first responders and paramedics on scene, the more likely the person will survive."

Discrepancies in reported numbers are also part of the issue law enforcement says they are facing.

Law enforcement uses an overdose map that police and emergency medical personnel input data into to track deaths. In early October, Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Bromberg said that map showed 17 overdose deaths in county so far in 2022.

"But when I call the Minnesota Department of Health and get the numbers from them, I'm at 30 (overdose deaths in the county)," he said, adding that the number from the Department of Health is only from January to June, leaving a three-month gap for numbers in the county.

This, added in with overdoses that aren't reported, means no one, from law enforcement to medical researchers, know the breadth of the problem.

"I'm fearful that the increase in addiction, substance abuse disorders and, quite frankly, mental health as well, are going to be some the most lasting lingering effects of COVID," GOP state Sen. Carla Nelson said.

She was intrigued by Torgerson's proposal to change reporting requirements and wants to start the conversation in the Legislature.

"My sense is, the reason this would be helpful would not be because of the person who is showing up in the ER, but for the traffickers, the dealers, people who are pushing these drugs that are killing Minnesotans," Nelson said. "We want people to come in, we want them to get help immediately if they're having an overdose but specifically, we want to go after the people who are peddling this poison."

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Stigma of addiction

"The most important thing to tell people with chemical dependence challenges and their families is that, in the health care system, we will treat them with kindness and respect, and we will protect their confidentiality," said Dr. Will Nicholson, president of the Minnesota Medical Association.

The Minnesota Medical Association doesn't have a specific stance on changing reporting requirements, according to Nicholson, but the association is looking into reviewing opioids, which he called a huge challenge in the state.

"We would never want to put any burden or barrier between life saving medical care and that person," he said. "At times, fear of getting into trouble can be a barrier, and I would hate to have that result in someone not getting care when they could have and having a bad outcome because of that."

Law enforcement isn't looking to out people's private medical information, Torgerson said, and he said he doesn't want to shame medical professionals for serving their patients, but overdoses, particularly with the introduction of fentanyl, is a national issue and one that the nation needs to address.

"We don't talk about those things because of that stigma with addiction," Torgerson said. "It brings shame on the family and all that, and I fully understand it but if these (deaths) were gunshots or even stabbings, 30 stabbings, would people think of it that way?"

Both Bromberg and Torgerson said law enforcement is only notified of overdose deaths when police are already involved in the case, are present at the emergency room or when family members call asking questions.

"By the time a family member calls us and says 'Hey, my loved one died of an overdose death two weeks ago, what can you do for us?' All their phones are gone and any evidence where they were at are gone which makes these cases almost impossible to prosecute," Bromberg said.

The focus on getting reporting requirements changed is go after the dealers, according to Bromberg and Torgerson, and not those suffering from addiction.

"The medical community likes to hide behind HIPAA on a lot of things but this is a public health epidemic, actually, and I would hope they would they would see the harm this does and society seems to have gotten away from victim rights," Bromberg said.

Nicholson said he understands why law enforcement is grappling with this issue and suggested we need to also be more proactive as a society and work together to solve addiction related issues.

"We have to get rid of all the stigma and we have to look at this like any other illness," Nicholson said. "We've got to treat people with chemical dependence just like people with heart attacks or strokes or diabetes. It's a different toolkit to treat them, it's a different set of things to prevent, but they have an illness just like any other illness. There is a treatment, there's prevention, and we should be the best state in the country for managing those things."

Blanchette wrote that crisis intervention training helps officers navigate situations involving addiction, with a focus on getting an individual help through their assisted recovery program .

"Social workers known as community outreach specialists often respond to overdose calls along with law enforcement, and together we work to make sure the person is aware of the resources available to them," he wrote. "Even though we don’t always get through to someone fighting addiction, we don’t give up. People have to be ready to accept the help that is being offered to them, and the power of addiction is not easy to overcome."

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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